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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 16, 1997 1:00 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: Last June, I appointed a panel of private citizens to review gender integrated training and related issues in the Army, the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker agreed to head this panel, and ten distinguished citizens were appointed to serve with her.

The panel includes retired senior military members -- both officer and NCO, and distinguished representatives from academia, journalism, and the legal profession. Two panelists have served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, and many of the members are here today.

The panel has met its deadline with a good report, and I want to thank Senator Kassebaum and the members of the panel for their service.

The difficult jobs that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines perform require rigorous training and effective discipline. I've asked the panel to review how we train, how effective our training programs are, and what needs to be done to improve them. The panel focused on initial entry training, which includes both basic and advanced training.

With the support of Congress, the military services have made significant progress in expanding opportunities for women, and the result is a strong, ready force that recruits from the entire population and assigns the most qualified individuals to serve in each military job.

Today, 13.7 percent of active duty military members are women; 80 percent of all military specialties are open to women, including more than 99 percent of the specialties in the Air Force, and 91 percent in the Navy. Military women and men -- and I want to emphasize it's both -- women and men are working together around the world to protect our national interests. Their commitment and effectiveness explains why our forces are so respected and so ready.

It's critical, therefore, that our initial training programs effectively prepare them for service in today's gender integrated military. It is in basic training that young men and women entering the all volunteer force become soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

I've just received the report of Senator Kassebaum-Baker's panel. The report recommends changes in the way we train our gender integrated all volunteer force. I have now asked the military services to review their recommendations and, report back to me within 90 days with their assessments. I want them to comment on the manpower, personnel, and cost implications of these recommendations, and most importantly, I've asked the services to study the impact that the panel's recommendations would have on force readiness and effectiveness.

Before you hear from Senator Kassebaum, I indeed want to express my deep and sincere appreciation to her. We have served many years together on Capitol Hill in the Senate, and she certainly was one of the most respected members in the Senate, remains one today, and is an effective voice in many different areas.

I also want to express my deep appreciation to all the panel members and the supporting staff. I am informed that they traveled to some 17 installations; they talked to more than 2,000 individuals.

It's clear from the panel's report that Senator Kassebaum shares my determination to make sure that military training is fair, demanding, and effective. Good training makes for a strong force.

Senator Kassebaum also shares my conviction that women are critical to today's military. They help make our force what it is today -- the best in the world.

Before turning to Senator Kassebaum, I'd like to entertain any questions, briefly, that you might have.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you called this a good report. Does that mean you agree with separate living quarters for young male and female recruits? And what would you say to charges by some that this abrogates leadership responsibility in that it just simply doesn't teach young men and women to live together and work together?

Secretary Cohen: First of all, I indicated it is a good report. It does reflect the hard work that these distinguished panel members have put into this process. It is part of a process, however, and now that I have the report I will again submit it to the services for their comment and their, either, criticisms or constructive recommendations that will come back to me. At that point I will make a determination in terms of what our policy will be for the future. But it is simply, at this stage, a report submitted to me on which I will need the input from the various services before coming to a conclusion as to whether any changes are necessary, and whether these recommendations should be put into force.

Q: If I might ask you what your initial reaction is to separate...

Secretary Cohen: It's a good report. (Laughter)

Q: So you're decidedly neutral?

Secretary Cohen: I am neutral and open, as I've indicated before, to all constructive recommendations. This is part of the process. I would expect the services to come back with their assessment in terms of whether it is feasible, desirable, and can be accomplished, and will improve the integrated military that we have today.

Q: On the Hill, already, we have gotten statements from various women leaders on the Hill saying it is definitely a step backward if the Defense Department and the services take this step. Do you have any comment on their criticism of the report when it's been off the presses for less than 24 hours?

Secretary Cohen: I think much needs to be done in terms of reading the report. Some of these stories that have been written do not accurately reflect what is in the report itself. This is not, as I read it, a step backward, but an attempt, or at least a series of recommendations by a very distinguished panel which is made up of both men and women -- retired military and non-military, as I indicated, those from the academic world as well as those from the legal profession -- it is a recommendation that is designed to make our military the most effective in the world as it is today, to enhance and improve the integrated military that we have.

So I would yield in a moment to the panel members, but I think that each one will assure you it is not their intent to have any step backwards, but to step forward and to provide the best training possible and the most effective training possible to make sure that we continue to have the best military in the world.

Q: On the question of readiness, and I'm backing into this one, Iraq now seems to be intransigent in not allowing UN inspectors to have full access to all locations. When last we met here you said that military strikes were still a possibility and they would probably not be a pinprick. Are we closer today to a military strike? And would you even say it's imminent?

Secretary Cohen: I would say we have to wait until Mr. Butler files his report or makes his report to the Security Council, and that the most important thing is for the Security Council to remain firmly behind the position they have taken before, that all sites must be open; that no sites can be ruled either to be sensitive or presidential in nature that would require any special process.

When we talk about presidential palaces, this is not the equivalent of Iraqi inspectors coming into the West Wing of the White House. We're talking about professional, trained experts going into compounds that are acres, if not square miles in size -- places which could, in fact, be used for either hiding documentation or instruments of weapons of mass destruction themselves.

So the position has been, and I would expect, and hope that it would continue to be, no sites are off limits and the Security Council will have to take whatever action it deems necessary at that point, and we should await what their recommendation would be for further action.

Q: Secretary Cohen, this report suggests that the military's system of training men and women together simply isn't working. To quote from it, it says, "It's resulting in less discipline, less unit cohesion, and more distraction from training." Do you agree with that?

Secretary Cohen: I think the members should speak to that particular issue themselves. I have indicated I think it's a good report. I don't believe that the report comes to the conclusion that the current system isn't working, but rather there are recommendations contained in the report that would make it work better -- that has been the goal of the panel and certainly my goal -- any kind of recommendation that would make our system more effective, more efficient, more ready, and also succeed in the continuation of promoting the role of women in our military. This is something that must be clearly understood.

This report does not in any way reflect, in my judgment, a step back from the progress we've made, but rather is designed to say how can we make the total force, the integrated force, the most effective we can for the future.

So I see this as a good report that should be subjected to the scrutiny of the various services. Also, certainly members of Congress are going to have commentary about it. But we have an obligation to really find the most effective force, provide for the most effective force in the world.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there are people who say that this report just gives support to those people who said women don't belong in the military, they don't belong in combat, and we told you so. How do you respond to that?

Secretary Cohen: I would say listen to the members of the panel -- look at who they are, what experience they bring to the panel's charter, as such. They are diverse in nature, in background, in gender, in race. They represent, I think, a broad spectrum of our society, and they are committed to having the best military force in the world with a commitment to make sure that women will continue to enjoy and integral part and play an integral part of our military. So I would say they should not draw that conclusion from this report, but the individual panel members, especially Senator Kassebaum-Baker, should address that directly.

Q: On Iraq again, if I can ask. Officials there today have scoffed at the report that you're going to vaccinate the troops against anthrax as unnecessary. What do you say to them?

Secretary Cohen: Do they say it's unnecessary? Well, in view of the fact that the report that I filed just a couple of weeks ago indicated that the threat of chemical and biological weapons is going to proliferate in the future. We see this as a necessary precaution for all of our men and women in the service, wherever they may serve. So we think it is necessary, and it's time that we started...as soon as we can, and we will begin that process by April or May. So it's something that, a threat that is there today. It's likely to increase and intensify in the future by virtue of so many additional countries getting access to weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax. So we think it's a necessary precaution.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the service Chiefs have all looked at their training, the gender integrated aspects of it, several times this year as a result, a response to various things that have happened, and all of them have endorsed what they're doing. Why do you think this is going to change their mind?

Secretary Cohen: I think the Chiefs should always be willing to reexamine their policies. If good ideas are presented to them, they certainly should be open to considering them. They may, upon examination, say we do not think this will enhance our capability or our readiness, morale, or other issues involved, but that's for them to examine and then to respond in a constructive fashion. So I see this as simply part of a process which needs to be examined. It's part of the recommendation that I made, being willing to look at an issue of this magnitude.

Other members of the panel, again, will address the issue. This should not be confined or considered to deal with simply sex in the military, as such, but rather how do we make the integrated training that we have today more effective so we deal with some of the issues that are involved in some of the charges that we've read about in the past. But it's really much broader than that, and it is designed to say how do we produce the best people that we can produce to serve in the military and to make it the most effective.

Q: Ultimately will it be your decision to decide whether or not you change the way men and women are trained? And when will you make that decision?

Secretary Cohen: Ultimately it's a decision that I would make, and I will make it after the services have had an opportunity to examine it and report back to me. Then obviously I would consult with the services, with the Joint Chiefs, and make a recommendation for change if change is warranted.

I would like to save a little bit of time for the panel members who have worked very long and hard on this.

Q: There are some other fairly provocative conclusions in the report, setting aside the integrated training. One is that recruiters seem to be routinely misleading people they're recruiting. Another one is that the whole training process has gotten just a lot too soft. Would you care to say anything about either of those two?

Secretary Cohen: I'd like to leave that for the members to address. They're the ones who have been out in the field talking to the troops, talking to the drill instructors, talking to officers and NCOs, so I think they're in a better position to answer that. I simply have received this report. I am then going to obviously study it myself, but then get the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs and the Chiefs of the services.